Theatre Royal Haymarket
10th July 2017
The Stuarts produced an eclectic bunch of rulers; the ignominy of Charles I’s demise being gamely complimented by his enigmatic predecessor and his lascivious namesake. Helen Edmundson’s play centres on the last of their number, the chronically shy and tragically childless Anne. An unlikely candidate for high drama, her story offers a fascinating insight into England at the turn of the 18th Century, set against the country’s war with France and Spain, and the rise of the satirist.
Queen Anne opens with a gaggle of wags singing a cruelly bawdy song about Princess Anne’s (Emma Cunniffe) failure to produce a healthy heir. She is further ridiculed by her beloved confidant, Sarah Churchill (Romola Garai), while her husband, a career soldier and the future Duke of Marlborough (Chu Omambala), admires the sway that she has over the Princess.
When we finally meet Anne, dressed in a dirty nightgown, legs riddled with bedsores, her anxiety is emphatic, and her passions for Sarah appear as a dangerous obsession. Yet Anne’s ascension to the throne heralds a new-found independence and self-belief which, coupled with the affirming influence of her maid Abigail Hill (Beth Park), sees Sarah’s power begin to wane. What follows is her bitter struggle to regain her place in court, reflected in the changes to the country at large.
The fact that Anne cuts such a pathetic figure in the opening Act poses a narrative challenge. In spite of their wit and excellent structure – expositional, but never condescending – there’s really no-one to root for during the play’s early scenes. The satirists, including the Princess’s physician – a joyful supporting performance by Michael Fenton Stevens – Jonathan Swift (Jonny Glynn) and Robert Harley, the Speaker of the Commons (James Garnon), have a somewhat out of focus agenda, which makes them slightly tedious. Abigail Hill’s integrity and sharp wit, elevated by Park’s thoughtful performance, does not hit its stride until the second act, whilst Garai’s Churchill and her myriad admirers are doggedly self-promoting. Anne’s loyalty and purity of heart pales next to her rotten subjects, and here her world appears rather unpalatable.
Yet when Anne is made queen, she and the play undergo a wonderful transformation. Her protestations that she knows nothing of politics, her ardent love of Sarah, and her self-pitying shuffles around the stage, gradually fade into the background, as she starts to believe that she can be mother to her sickly nation. Edmundson does a wonderful job of expanding Anne’s horizons in a realistic manner, and without expense to the drama. When Anne is ill-informed, she seeks knowledge, and when Sarah berates her over political decisions, she seeks kinship, rather than forgiveness. Cunniffe’s performance is extraordinary for demonstrating not only Anne’s complexities but her personal growth, whilst never losing sight of the passions and tragedies that define her.
Cunniffe and Garai are excellent together; the fluctuating dynamic of Sarah and Anne’s relationship reveals so much about their deepest desires, without casting ultimate judgement on either. Indeed, the play benefits from protagonist-centred morality, whereby the events that unfold subsequent to Anne’s ascension are qualified by the characters plotting and pondering on stage. Such thoughtful interludes facilitate the use of melodrama – a satirist plot to pamphlet away Anne’s power, the threat of releasing scandalous love letters, the embezzlement of public money – and help create a believable England from which Anne rules.
Though Sarah Churchill is depicted as thoroughly disreputable, her insatiable ambition is played to tragic effect. Garai beautifully examines her inability to see good in others – with the aid of Park’s servant as a well-judged foil – and the delusions of grandeur which quite literally cause her house to be built on unsustainable foundations. This culminates in a spellbinding final scene in which both Cunniffe and Garai excel; the latter’s final speech a historical in-joke with a sad and highly effective punch line.
Queen Anne offers an insightful and commendably believable depiction of the reign of one of England’s lesser known monarchs, and her complex relationship with childhood friend Sarah Churchill. Though the play takes time to get into its stride, the second Act is quite exceptional. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai give wonderful performances, and the play has an extremely satisfying payoff.